Endeavour’s Fall #19: Homeward BoundMar 26, 2017
The coal in South Wales alone is capable of supplying all England, at present rate of consumption, for 2,000 years.
-Robert Bakewell, An Introduction to Geology [1815 Edition]
Captain Jenkins of the SS Curling felt uneasy. He scanned the horizon nonstop. The sea rolled lightly.
Tons of high-grade coal and pig iron as ballast loaded the Curling down low in the water. This let her rows of paddle wheels dig smoothly into the sea. Jenkins was running paddles and some sails, but the winds were not very favorable.
It wasn’t the seas that worried Jenkins. He’d only been given reports of smooth sailing when leaving Wales, but on this side of the Atlantic, in the seedy portside retreats he frequented on New York’s harbor, Jenkins had heard differently. There were rumors of pirates. And not your usual pirates.
Usually pirates target passenger ships or machined goods heading to the colonies. Perhaps a tax-carrying frigate or two headed for London would be attacked each season, but they were well-armed and well-paid for the risk. Pirates have no need for bulk commodities leaving the colonies. They could more easily buy smuggled coal or iron ashore.
Rumor had it that both colliers and ore ships had gone missing this summer. The bars were abuzz with stories. Jenkin was not used to looking over his shoulder. He was not paid to risk his life. Jenkins longed to see the tower at Oystermouth, but that lay more than ten days over the horizon.
Jenkins barked an order down the tubes. He’d rather burn into his cargo than stay on the open sea an extra day with pirates. A deep black smoke puffed out of the stacks.
“Captain! Airship off our stern!”
Jenkins’ heart beat faster. Stepping out into the spray, he carefully trained an eyeglass on the large shape in the clouds.
“Alright, Evans, it looks like an Imperial bird. Keep an eye on her, we might have just picked up an escort. Maybe she’ll tail us right into Swansea.” Jenkins couldn’t believe his luck. He’d heard that the Royal Airship Navy ran a few airships along this route, but he never believed rumors of good news.
Jenkins started to hum the tenor notes of a mariner’s hymn. Clear rolling seas ahead and an Imperial escort. Things were definitely looking up. Jenkins heard the flapping of signal flags from his mate.
“Captain, she’s signaling us to maintain heading and reduce speed five knots.”
“Is she boarding?”
“She intends to pull alongside.”
Jenkins sighed. Maybe it wasn’t all good news then. He wasn’t hiding anything on this voyage, but never liked the feeling of the Empire looking over his shoulder.
“Infernal blazes! I’ll ease off the steam a bit. Heaven forbid a Navy Captain have trouble keeping up with us.” Jenkins muttered a few Welsh curses under his breath as he gave the orders.
Jenkins kept a close eye on the airship as she approached. She had obviously seen some action. He could barely make out the lettering of her name through patching and black streak marks across her otherwise white hull.
Soon a long line descended from the airship’s hatch. With only a bit of maneuvering, a hook at the end of the line snagged expertly on the stern of his ship. Evans quickly lashed the line it to a nearby cleat.
“Nice bit of piloting, that was,” Jenkins said.
The airship’s screws stopped whirring overhead. There was another flapping of flags as signals were exchanged.
“Evans! What are they up to? They’re pulling my stern to port.”
“Captain, it looks like they just want a ride”
“Freeloading bastards! Alright then, what are you waiting for? Full steam ahead!” The blasted Navy prigs cost him money even when they were supposed to be helping, thought Jenkins as he trimmed the helm to starboard. No doubt his new shadow was intended to frighten away pirates, but it was going to cost him tons of coal a day. Hopefully he wouldn’t have to drag her through a headwind. Jenkins left Evans on the bridge and headed down to the galley.
It was dark when Jenkins climbed the port stairs back to the bridge at the end of second watch. His pork chops had been dry, so he’d drunk a bit too much wine with dinner.
“Evans! Report!” Jenkins barked as he crashed into the empty bridge. Where had she gone? He needed to stop hiring hands out of the coal mines, Jenkins reflected. They were cheap and they knew coal, but sometimes he just needed reliability.
Jenkins dully took stock of the bridge. Everything seemed to be in order. Moments later, he noticed the orange glow in the forward hatches. That couldn’t be the boilers, could it? Then the hair stood up on the back of his neck. There was only one thing a collier feared more than pirates or the Devil himself.
“Fire!” Jenkins yelled down to the engine room. There was no answer. “Fire!”
Jenkins yanked on the alarm cord and ran to the starboard hatch. The bridge door was jammed on something, and wouldn’t open. Jenkins threw his whole barrel-chested weight into the metal and shoved, hard. It was Evans. She lay limp on the deck.
Jenkins rang the bell, again and again, but it was too late. The fire had spread. With rivets bursting and her hull glowing orange, the SS Curling dove into the black depths of the North Atlantic. Before he went down with his ship, Jenkins briefly wondered where their Imperial escort had vanished to and muttered one last miner’s curse.
© J. O. Evans 2017. All Rights Reserved.